In the language of the Inuit people, “nanook” or “nanuq” means “polar bear,” as in the greatest hunting animal of the north, a thousand pounds, aggressive but stealthy, and a spiritual ideal for the Inuit. Yet in the movie Nanook of the North there are no polar bears. One reason for that has to be the most obvious: filming bears in the northern reaches of Quebec, on the eastern shores of Hudson Bay, was downright dangerous. There’s a first lesson in how this documentary on the life of “the most cheerful people in all the world—the fearless, lovable happy-go-lucky Eskimo” (to quote the film’s rapturous titles) is somewhat compromised.
But compromised movies can have immense potency and impact. Nanook of the North is not just “a classic,” voted the seventh greatest documentary of all time in Sight and Sound’s 2014 poll, it is universally acknowledged as a landmark in the pioneering attempt to film “reality.” Robert J. Flaherty (1884–1951) is as revered a father figure of that scheme as Georges Méliès, D.W. Griffith, and Sergei Eisenstein are in fiction—and all those directors are too complicated to deserve mere reverence.
Flaherty was born in Michigan, son of an Irishman and a German mother, but raised in Canada. Once he had graduated college, he began as a prospector in the north. That sentence employs two vague but poetic words—what does a prospector seek? It can be gold or other precious things, which could be fish, fur, and food; or it could be nothing less than “prospects,” views of a real world mixed with an imagined or anticipated one, the future, the frontier, the secret desires of the beholder.
And the north? Anyone needs to find a map to realize how much of Canada there is beyond the southern strip of population. The titles of Nanook speak of “illimitable places which top the world,” though its northern Umqua is still short of the Arctic Circle (and many live beyond that). The U.S. and Canada have approximately the same land mass: 3.8 million square miles each. But Canada has only a tenth of America’s population. So going north in Canada is venturing into emptiness, and Nanook of the North is profoundly impressed by that Romantic isolation and how it looks on film.
In 1910, Flaherty went to the Hudson Bay area prospecting—he was making maps and seeing what was there. He was given a Bell & Howell 16mm camera, and encouraged to film the unknown. So he accumulated and then lost thirty thousand feet of coverage when a cigarette he was smoking set fire to the nitrate film stock. But he was enthused by the enterprise and in 1920–21 he went back, funded by the Revillon Frères Fur Company, with two more sophisticated cameras. What did he want or expect? He didn’t know—explorers and imaginers seldom do know.
In August 1920, Flaherty was in Port Harrison in northern Quebec intending to film the life of the Inuit. As he set out, he was doing this for its own sake in a spirit of inquiry. But he could not stay open-minded. He saw the Inuit and the epic simplicity of their lives (that’s not necessarily what they felt) and the endless challenge to survive. That meant finding fish, seal, or walrus to eat, and avoiding polar bears, devastating cold, starvation, illness, and an apparent lack of what we might call introspection.
Flaherty adored these “noble savages”—you can feel it in Nanook’s sturdy grins for the camera and in the efforts these fur-clad nomads make to abide by terrible nature. Moreover, Flaherty developed his film on location and then showed it to the Inuit. He cherished water, snow, and the sight of lone figures trudging along. But he cheated: he could not help that because he loved the idea of these people and knew too little about their thought. Yet we revere him as a discoverer of reality.
How did he cheat? He cast an Inuit to be “Nanook”—his name was Allakariallak, which didn’t work in a movie title. He began to make a scenario for Nanook: by 1920, the real Inuit had rifles to get food, but Flaherty said, please, use harpoons, spears, and bows and arrows such as noble savages might do. He got the family to do the funny “How many Inuit fit in a kayak?” routine. There is another scene where Nanook and company come to a “trading post.” It is there that Nanook sees a gramophone and—in the film—picks up a record and tries to eat it, in a way audiences would have relished, “Oh, these innocent savages!” That must have been a splendid laugh moment in 1922, but Allakariallak already knew very well what a record was. So he acted up for Flaherty’s movie and grinned at the camera to show he could take it. No one knows how much, but these people were paid to be real.
When it came to building the igloo—a set-piece event—Flaherty realized that he couldn’t get a camera and lights inside the ice house, so he built a “set” igloo and filmed it that way. Why not? What would you have done? But all through the film, there are these compromises. And surely nearly a hundred years later we need to be candid about them, even if Nanook has the sacred status of a silent classic.
Do these things matter? Of course they do, but they don’t detract from the way, in 1922, Nanook of the North seemed like a cold blast from places beyond ordinary coverage or understanding. The picture had the originality that images from the Moon had in 1969, and every movie deserves to be judged first in the mood of its opening. Whatever his adjustments of fact, Flaherty had a superb eye for the windswept desert of snow, for the way flurries on the surface were like music chasing away silence, and for the revelation that people lived here. Even as “Nanook,” Allakariallak was the real thing. The leather of his face bespoke a life of exposure, and there was nothing fake in the physical persistence that endeared him to the world.
Audiences marveled at his struggle to haul a walrus from the sea or a seal from a fishing hole. They understood how to build an igloo and they were happy hero-worshippers in contemplating the Inuit as they gnawed at raw meat and clung for warmth beneath furs and blankets. Flaherty was making a portrait for public consumption, but he had been there for months and years himself, going to live in the “wilderness” and leaving his wife, Frances, behind (they married in 1914).
But as we honor the way Nanook moved people in 1922—and the film was a worldwide sensation as no nonfiction movie had been before—still we have to admit its shortcomings. Some of the most moving scenes are of Nanook’s family, sleeping together in an igloo that must stay below freezing point so that the walls do not melt. As we see them wake and dress (rehearsed, no doubt), we see the naked breasts of Nanook’s wife. This is not salacious; it is nowhere near exploitation. Still, the wife—a character named Nyla—was not the wife to Nanook or Allakariallak. She was Flaherty’s mistress as he lived up in the north. There is another woman in the film, Cunayou, and she was Flaherty’s lover, too.
We do not need to be shocked: movie directors do sometimes sleep with actresses in the course of a location shoot. But this situation is more complicated. As the English academic Melanie McGrath described in her 2006 book, The Long Exile: A True Story of Deception and Survival Among the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic, the woman who played Nyla—we think her name was Alice Nuvalinga—had a child by Flaherty, a son named Josephie, who lived from 1921 to 1984. In turn, the movie director never acknowledged this child or chose to answer questions about him. In the 1950s, after Flaherty’s death, that son was in a group of Inuit forcibly removed from their homeland by the Canadian government and sent to live in a bleaker place farther north.
The McGrath version of history is not proved beyond doubt, because that territory and the life there are more open to a movie camera than they are to careful judicial investigation. It is not the end of the world if a movie director behaved badly, but in the interest of the process we call documentary it is up to us to look carefully at evidence. Nanook of the North is a title known to millions who have never seen the film. It comes from another age: Flaherty approved of the British Empire. At a mere seventy-nine minutes, it is a fascinating experience and a confrontation with wilderness as intense as The Revenant. But the theory of “the noble savage” bears constant reexamination, for savagery is everyone’s birthright just as nobility can be a misuse of our longing for reverence.
Presented at SFSFF 2016 with live music by the Matti Bye Ensemble